A review of The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson, Flatiron Books (February 2020) 397 pages.
Editor’s note: the following essay contains spoilers.
There’s a moment midway through the film Chinatown (1974) in which the hero, Jake Gittes, hands us a clue—not a clue about the case he’s investigating, the one involving graft and murder in L.A.’s Department of Water and Power, but a more subtextual kind of clue, hinting at the meaning of the film’s enigmatic title. Jake (Jack Nicholson) and his client, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), are standing in her back yard, and she’s prodding him about his life before he became a private eye, when he worked as a cop in Chinatown. What did he do there, she asks? “As little as possible,” Jake replies. This bit of dialogue may seem innocuous, but it was, in fact, the inspiration for the entire film, taken by screenwriter Robert Towne from an actual Chinatown cop, whom he met in the early 1970s. In Chinatown, the policeman explained, you have to do as little as possible, not because you’re lazy per se, but because you never know what’s going on, whether you’re preventing a crime or abetting one.1 Towne loved this idea, seeing it not only as a good line for a movie but a metaphor for life in Los Angeles, a place where you may think you know what’s going on, but you never really do. If he’d had his way, the film wouldn’t have had a single scene set in Chinatown. The title, he thought, spoke for itself.
Although he was already well known in Hollywood as a go-to script doctor—he had penned scenes for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972)—Towne effectively made his name with Chinatown and has dined off its success ever since. In 1979, screenwriting guru Syd Field dubbed it the “best American screenplay written during the 1970s,” and in subsequent decades the script has made so many top-10 lists that singing its praises can now seem almost trite.2 Critics point out (quite rightly) that every revelation in the story is doled at precisely the right moment, pushing the plot along without ever spoiling the mystery, and that every event—indeed, every line of dialogue—serves a purpose, from Gittes’s crude jokes to his observation, in the first minutes of the film, that sometimes it’s best to “let sleeping dogs lie.”3 If only he’d heeded his own advice.
Whether Towne really deserves all the kudos he’s received for Chinatown has long been a matter of debate. Cineastes have known for decades that the film’s director, Roman Polanski, played a big role in writing the script, despite the fact that he didn’t receive a screenwriting credit. Towne’s first draft weighed in at nearly 350 pages—the equivalent of about five-and-a-half hours of screen time—and contained so many extraneous characters, subplots, and period details that, according to Polanski, the plot was incomprehensible.4 The pair spent eight weeks, in the spring and summer of 1973, holed up in a house above Sunset Boulevard, whittling Towne’s magnum opus down to size, an experience they each found maddening. “We fought, every day, over everything,” Towne recalls.5 Polanski insisted that the movie had to have at least one scene set in Chinatown. Towne disagreed. Towne wanted more scenes between Jake and Evelyn. Polanski disagreed. Towne thought the film should have a happy ending, or at least a semi-happy ending, with villainy vanquished. Polanski preferred a tragic conclusion, full of bitter irony.
As Sam Wasson makes clear in his new book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, one reason that the film is so good is that it blends both Towne and Polanski’s antipodal sensibilities. What Towne brought to the project—in addition to dreaming up the tale in the first place—was his nostalgia for the Depression-era California of his childhood: a California still full of orange groves and Okies, with Seabiscuit races on the radio and Raymond Chandler stories in Black Mask magazine. “I realized that I had in common with Chandler that I loved L.A. and missed the L.A. that I loved,” Towne recalls. “The ruins of it, the residue, were left. They were so pervasive that you could still shoot them and create the L.A. that had been lost.”6
Wistfulness of this sort can, of course, easily become twee, which is why Polanski proved to be such a good foil for Towne. If Towne imbued the film with pre-War nostalgia, Polanski gave it a healthy dose of Nixon-era cynicism. Chinatown was the first movie he made in Los Angeles after the 1969 murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, and his disillusion (both with Los Angeles and with life itself) bled into the film. He saw what Towne didn’t—that the film’s original ending, with Evelyn Mulwray killing her father and saving her daughter, undermined the theme of the film. If Chinatown, as Towne liked to say, was really a metaphor for the futility of good intentions, then Evelyn has to die.7 Noah Cross (John Huston) isn’t just the arch-villain of the movie; he’s the personification of the conspiracy at the heart of the story. He can’t be killed, because he isn’t really one man at all; he’s a stand-in for an entire unseen network of men who secretly control Los Angeles, and who will continue to control it no matter what Jake Gittes does. The fact that Evelyn dies and Cross prevails demonstrates what Gittes knew all along, the lesson he’d first learned as a cop in Chinatown, that sometimes it’s best to do as little as possible.
What Wasson reveals in his book is that Towne had an additional collaborator on the script, a secret collaborator whom even Polanski didn’t know about: his college roommate, Edward Taylor. The two, in fact, had been working together for years, and would continue to do so for decades afterwards, the arrangement always the same: Towne the front man, Taylor the silent partner. While the former got rich and famous, the latter remained an obscure sociology professor. Why did Taylor consent to this arrangement? Temperament, it would seem. A shy man by nature, he avoided the limelight, preferring to hide in Towne’s shadow. “I don’t get upset if he rejects a suggestion,” Taylor told a colleague. “I don’t even get upset if he accepts a suggestion and then forgets that I was the one who made it.”8 Fair enough, one thinks, if that’s how Taylor wanted it. But the arrangement, nonetheless, doesn’t reflect particularly well on Towne, who, when he mentioned Taylor at all, dismissed him as “my editor.”9 “Robert was the strong one and Edward the weak one,” a mutual friend explains, “but Edward was the brilliant one. I mean the guy was smart. Character psychology and motivation were his forte. The guy deserves credit, a lot of credit.”10
If Towne comes off looking worse than Polanski in Wasson’s book—at least, artistically speaking—it may be because, unlike Polanski, producer Robert Evans, and Towne’s ex-wife, Julie Payne, he wasn’t interviewed by the author. This is not to say that the book’s portrait of Towne is unfair but merely to point out that Wasson, at times, leans rather heavily on single sources. At one point, he reconstructs a lengthy phone conversation between Evans and agent Sue Mengers, complete with stage directions, entirely from Evans’ memory. Even for the best mnemonists, this would be an impressive level of recall, but coming from a man who consumed as much cocaine as Evans did in the 1970s, it’s downright incredible.
The fact is that Towne does deserve praise for his work on the film. It’s to his great credit that he didn’t simply turn Chinatown into a Raymond Chandler redux. One of the weaknesses of Chandler’s novels is that the hero, Philip Marlowe, is such a white knight: tough, intelligent, quick-tongued, as honorable as he is handsome, always abiding by a strict moral code, both in business and the bedroom. He’d never do the kind of “matrimonial” work that Gittes does, snapping photos of wanton wives in flagrante. Towne, bucking noir tradition, also insisted that Gittes should be a dandy—the type of fellow who prides himself on his three-piece suits, silk pocket-handkerchiefs, and Florsheim shoes. The biggest genre twist, though, is the black widow: i.e., Evelyn Mulwray. For much of the film, Towne establishes her as the typical film noir femme fatale, in the tradition of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—neurotic, promiscuous, and full of secrets—only to pull the rug out from under us at the end. It turns out that she’s not a femme fatale but a femme violée, not a villainess but a victim.
What Wasson, strangely, fails to note in his book is that one reason that Chinatown’s screenplay is so good is that the editing and the directing are so good, as well. Consider the eyeglasses—not the ones that Gittes finds in the saltwater pond, the ones he mistakenly thinks belonged to Hollis Mulwray, but the other pair, the bifocals that Cross displays during his lunch with Gittes. This a clue, of course, a piece of physical evidence that later ties Cross to Mulwray’s murder. Yet, it’s a clue that neither we nor Gittes, at that moment, know we’re being given. A less subtle filmmaker might have cut to a close-up of Cross as he lifts the glasses to his face, thus making sure we notice them. But that would have given the game away, alerting us to their importance. Instead, Polanski and his editor, Sam O’Steen, cut to a close-up of the fish (head still on) being served for lunch, as if that is what they want us to observe. Talk about a red herring! We think we’re being shown a fish, but really we’re being distracted from the most crucial piece of information in front of us: the bifocals. Sure, the scene is well written, but it’s the directing, the editing, and the acting that make it brilliant.
This is not to say that Polanksi’s instincts were always correct. Evans wanted to cast Jane Fonda as Evelyn Mulwray, and, in retrospect, Fonda would have been excellent. She’d already shown in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969) and Klute (1971) that she had a talent for playing complex, contradictory characters—characters who could be simultaneously secretive and seductive, tough one moment and vulnerable the next. Polanski, though, preferred Faye Dunaway… or at least he did until they began working together. Her habit of showing up late to the set, and of wasting valuable time on crimping and primping when she was there, infuriated him. On the other hand, his penchant for giving line-readings to the actors infuriated her.11 When she’d ask what her character’s motivation was, he’d reply, “Say the fucking words. Your salary is your motivation.”12 Things came to a head, so to speak, during the restaurant scene between Jake and Evelyn, when a stray hair on Dunaway’s head kept standing on end, ruining the shot. Tired of waiting, Polanski ran over and, without so much as a by-your-leave, plucked the hair from her scalp, instigating a shouting match that concluded with Dunaway walking off the set and (temporarily) off the film, as well. According to an anecdote that Wasson doesn’t repeat in his book, Dunaway later got her revenge by throwing a coffee-cup full of urine into Polanski’s face.13
The real problem with Dunaway, though, wasn’t her on-set behavior. It’s her performance in the movie. She’s not bad, just not as good as she could be. For one thing, she’s too brittle. Her quirk of stammering every time she mentions her father was meant to be naturalistic, hinting at the sexual trauma buried in Evelyn’s past, but it comes off as overly affected, so much so that Polanski and O’Steen were forced to cut around it in the editing room, without ever entirely succeeding.14 Her performance, likewise, lacks an essential sexual spark, which is curious considering how sultry Dunaway proved she could be in both Bonnie and Clyde and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Evelyn is supposed to be a highly sexed woman—a fact she admits herself—and yet, when she and Jake go to bed together, the scene lacks the heat demanded of her reputation.
Not that this is only—or, even, primarily—Dunaway’s fault. By reducing the number of scenes between Jake and Evelyn, Polanski helped the plot but hurt the romance. As it is, the sex scene seems more obligatory than amatory, shoehorned in to fit the conventions of the genre or, perhaps, as Towne speculated, simply to stroke the director’s ego: “[Polanski] preferred identifying with the character when the woman praised him for making love well.”15 Towne may be right about Polanski’s motivations. During their time working on the screenplay together, the director often interrupted scripting sessions to run outside and take nude photos of teenage girls by the pool.16 But Polanski’s reasoning makes sense, at least on the page. He argued that if Jake and Evelyn had good sex that would strengthen their emotional bond, which would, in turn, make her death at the end all the more tragic for Jake.
What Polanski failed to see was that the ending he’d devised, with Evelyn being shot dead by the police, was tragic enough already. One of the questions that Towne had wrestled with in the early drafts of the script was whether to make the film’s finale about the water department or about Evelyn Mulwray. Logic argued that it should be about the water department: How could Evelyn’s troubles, moving as they are, compete with such an epochal conspiracy, one that robbed hundreds of small farmers of their livelihoods and shaped the destiny of an entire region? As the script developed, though, he found that Evelyn’s personal history was taking on increasing importance. And rightly so. Were Chinatown simply about the exposure of a water and real estate scheme, it would be a clever whodunit, an original take on the detective genre. It’s the intimacy of the story, as well as the precision of the plotting, that makes it a wonderful film. Noah Cross would not be such a monster if he were merely a corrupt tycoon. The world is full of those. What makes him truly repugnant is the fact that he raped his own daughter and, by the looks of him, appears ready to do the same to his granddaughter, as well. Considering how much time Wasson spends examining the lives of Chinatown’s creators, it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t dwell more on the irony here: that this villain—by nearly any estimate, one of the best in screen history—was, at least in part, conjured by Roman Polanski, a man who, a mere three years later, would himself be arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl.
Wasson’s book, as its subtitle suggests, isn’t meant to be a study of a single movie but a portrait of an entire era, and at times he affects a style that is itself redolent of the 1970s, full of staccato sentences and the kind of screenplayese that Tom Wolfe might have used if he’d been telling the tale: “Hutton Drive, night. Towne and his typewriter. His cigar and his dog. And his idea.”17 At others, he goes in the opposite direction, stretching his metaphors till they nearly snap: “In satin shoes and cravat, cocaine doffed its hat and stepped into Hollywood, and promised, for a moment (and then another), a fraudulent dream in the heat of a cold sun.”18 Yet, for all his foibles, Wasson is an ambidextrous writer, on the one hand presenting a fine-grained portrait of a single film production, and on the other offering a larger, more capacious narrative of Hollywood history, one that begins with the Manson murders in 1969 and ends, 20 years later, with the birth of Chinatown’s lackluster sibling, The Two Jakes (1990). Towne had begun planning the sequel even before Chinatown finished filming, picturing it as the second panel of a noir triptych—the first dealing with water, the second with oil, and the third with Gittes’s own matrimonial woes. Nicholson and Evans were both delighted with the idea, but, by the time The Two Jakes finally got made, fame had taken its toll on all of them. Evans was a husk of his former self, so ravaged by cocaine addiction that he could barely get out of bed; Towne and Nicholson, who’d been friends since the 1950s, were barely speaking to one another; and Polanski was living in exile in Paris, having fled the States.
But it wasn’t just the film’s creators who’d changed in the intervening years. Hollywood itself was no longer the same. As Wasson points out, while Chinatown was shooting on the Paramount lot, The Godfather Part II (1974) was filming on the next soundstage over. Evans had built the studio into a powerhouse in the Seventies by producing such films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Harold and Maude (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), and The Conversation (1974). Ten years later, with Evans long gone, the studio was making more money than ever but with a very different slate of films—slick, high-concept pictures like Top Gun (1986), Crocodile Dundee (1986), and the Indiana Jones franchise. Even if Towne, Nicholson, and Evans had been able to put together a decent sequel—a pretty big if, without Polanski at the helm—the mood, almost certainly, wouldn’t have been right. Chinatown was filmed at the same time that the Watergate hearings were being held in Washington, and the film clearly absorbed some of the paranoia of the period. “We were making Chinatown the movie,” assistant director Howard Koch recalls, “and America was becoming Chinatown the country.”19 It was naïve of Towne, Evans, and Nicholson to think that they could recreate that zeitgeist at the dawn of the 1990s. Too much had changed, both in Hollywood and the world at large. They would have been better off taking Jake’s advice and letting sleeping dogs lie. Then again, though, no one ever does in Chinatown.
Graham Daseler is a film editor and writer living in Los Angeles. His articles have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the American Conservative, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and numerous other periodicals.
1 Eaton, Michael. Chinatown. BFI Publishing, 1997, p.13
2 Wasson, Sam. The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Flatiron Books, 2020, p.307
3 Eaton, Michael. Chinatown. BFI Publishing, 1997, p.46
4 Polanski, Roman. Roman. William Morrow and Company. New York, 1984, p.346
5 Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon & Schuster, 1998. p.165
6 Wasson, Sam. The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Flatiron Books, 2020, p.60
7 Ibid., p.271
8 Ibid., p.103
9 Ibid., p.102
10 Ibid., p.103
11 Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon & Schuster, 1998, p.188
12 Ibid., p.189
13 Ibid., p.189
14 Wasson, Sam. The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Flatiron Books, 2020, p.247
15 Ibid., p.133
16 Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Simon & Schuster, 1998, p.166
17 Wasson, Sam. The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. Flatiron Books, 2020, p.89
18 Ibid., p.130
19 Ibid., p.218